I will be the first to admit that I am not what one might call “outdoorsy.” I don’t like camping, consider sleeping in a tent to be inhumane and once famously showed up for a hiking date wearing wedge sandals and white capris (sidenote: I married that guy. I like to remind him that he knew what he was getting into from the beginning).
As such, I would not have thought to seek out opportunities to spend time in national parks. I spent the early part of my adulthood safely ensconced in climate-controlled buildings with heat and plumbing. But then I met my soon-to-be husband. He was, and is to this day, my opposite. Rugged, adventurous, and a lover of all things nature, he fascinated me.
In fact, he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail – all 2,176 miles of it – the summer before I met him. To this day, I don’t understand what compels someone to leave the comforts of civilization to sleep under the stars for five months (with mice, bugs, bears, and who knows what else), but it was an experience that filled his soul and shaped the rest of his life.
In the first two years I knew my husband, I spent more time in state and national parks than I had in my previous thirty years. At first, I was a reluctant participant. Gradually, I opened my mind to the possibilities and experiences to be had. Now? I am an avid fan of our national parks, and hope to instill that love into my children.
There is nothing so American as our national parks….
The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people,
that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. president
Here are some of my favorite—and unexpected—things I found in our national parks.
The first thing I began to realize upon spending time in the parks is how present I am when I’m there – and how easy it is to be present. Being in the parks is an opportunity and an excuse to turn off the craziness of life temporarily and focus on the details that make the landscape and wildlife unique.
Upon showing our national parks pass at the gate, we all put away our electronics, turn off the radio, and focus completely on the experience. And it makes all the difference. With focus, we notice so much more than we would distracted.
We love to play games in the park, such as animal spotting. Sometimes it’s whoever spots the first animal; other times it’s the law of gross tonnage that wins (so, someone who spots three moose will beat someone who spots a bald eagle, an antelope and a marmot). Our family is competitive, and my kids are in it to win it. It’s a fun game that keeps us present and looking out for the amazing wildlife that are specific to the region.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.
-John Muir, naturalist, author, founder, The Sierra Club
In our parks, unlike the rest of our lives, we can easily find solitude. Prior to having kids, I would not have considered myself a person who needed time alone in order to recharge. My husband is very much this person – solitude and presence in nature fills his soul.
As much as I love people, I have discovered the joy and peace that can be found in wondrous solitude. I love revelling in the nature that abounds in national parks.
I encourage you to get off the beaten path: don’t just hit the big “scenic overlooks” or very crowded areas – find some remote trails and get out of the car. Walk without a timeframe or a destination. Listen to the nature around you. When you walk, look ahead, but also turn around and look back: the view behind you is sometimes as spectacular as the one in front of you.
“I have a room all to myself. It is nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau, writer, philosopher, naturalist, surveyor, historian
By calming my thoughts, focusing on my surroundings and taking time to be alone with my thoughts, I have discovered a peace that’s impossible to replicate outside of nature. I am decidedly one of those “one million tabs open in the browser of my mind” people. Settling in to quiet is not something that comes naturally to me, nor is it particularly easy. But it is so very worth it.
Even when traveling with my children (who are definitely not quiet or peaceful by any stretch of the imagination), I can find a few moments to revel in the quietude that only nature can provide. One of my favorite things to do is record video of a particularly peaceful spot and moment: not so much to SEE it again, but to hear it. I will often go back and listen to audio I have recorded in national parks, to return to the peace I felt in the moment I was recording it.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
-John Muir, naturalist, author, founder, The Sierra Club
One of the favorite benefits of spending time in our parks is the togetherness we experience as a family. Life is busy: we are easily swept up into our hectic sports, school and work schedules. Even family dinners – which we make electronics-free and a priority, can have its distractions as there are always chores to do, homework to work on, etc.
When we are in national parks, we are together at its simplest level. We we experiencing the same thing, but each of us with our own unique perspective. I like to spend time with each child individually, to hear their thoughts on what they are seeing and experiencing. When we are driving home, we ask each person in the car what their favorite part of the day in the park was – and they’re often different things, even though we were together all day.
Living in Colorado, and in such close proximity to the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park, my children sometimes lose sight of how fortunate they are to frequently see what others may never see in a lifetime.
I am thankful for the pioneers who have made these experiences possible. If it weren’t for the vision of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt, who designated America’s first national parks (starting with Yellowstone in 1872), these lands would not have been preserved. What insight they had, to know that development would threaten our wild lands, and that left unprotected, capitalism would prevail and the national parks would be accessible only to the very rich.
I am thankful for John Muir, Sierra Club founder and whose writing inspired a love for conserving the outdoors in many people, If it weren’t for Muir, America would look very different today.
I am thankful for Ken Burns, whose inspiring documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” outlines the history, challenges and decisions made by so many people, resulting in the rich parks system we are all free to enjoy today.
I encourage you—even if you are like me and nature isn’t exactly second nature—to see what you can find in America’s rich and vast national park system. It was a gift to us from previous generations, and through the preservation and support of the American people, will be a gift for generations to come.
National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American,
absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
-Wallace Stegner, novelist, short story writer, historian, environmentalist